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There is no denying that The Wild One (1953) was the prototype for the motorcycle gang picture and that Marlon Brando's biker anti-hero became the iconic image of rock 'n' roll rebelliousness in the fifties, but for moviegoers in the sixties The Wild Angels (1966) was just as controversial and influential for its generation. It not only spawned a new film subgenre, resulting in dozens of biker flicks, but made an overnight star of Peter Fonda, brought financial clout and critical respectability in some quarters to director Roger Corman, and immortalized the culture of the Hell's Angels on film.
"It was a Life magazine photograph that gave me the idea for The Wild Angels," Corman recalled in his autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. "The photo, in a January 1966 issue, showed a group of Hell's Angels on their choppers going to the funeral of one of their members. I brought the project to AIP [American International Pictures] and they went forward with a treatment titled All the Fallen Angels." AIP wanted a film in a similar vein to The Wild One in which the Angels would be depicted as rampaging outsiders but Corman effectively argued against that, convincing the executive producers that an insider view of the biker culture would have more impact. "I saw the Hell's Angels riding free as a modern-day cowboy," the director stated. "The chopper was his horse. The locales would be the wide-open spaces - the beach, the desert, and the mountains."
AIP executives initially wanted George Chakiris, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® winner for West Side Story (1961), for the lead role of Heavenly Blue. Chakiris didn't know how to ride a motorcycle, however, and refused to do the film without doubles and stuntmen. Corman then offered the role to Peter Fonda, who was originally cast to play a supporting character in the film called Loser. Nancy Sinatra, whose top forty single "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" was still on the charts, was cast as Fonda's biker mama, Mike, and Bruce Dern, still a relatively unknown supporting actor in TV, theatre and film, took over Fonda's previously assigned role, playing opposite his wife in real life, Diane Ladd, as Gaysh. The supporting cast was filled out with such familiar faces as Buck Taylor, Michael J. Pollard, Dick Miller, Gayle Hunnicutt (who was dating Corman at the time) and actual members of the Hell's Angels.
"I agreed to pay the Angels $35 a day," Corman recalled, "plus another $20 for the bikes per man and $15 for the old ladies. We planned on a three-week shoot, entirely in natural locations around Venice, San Pedro, and the mountains and desert around Palm Springs. The budget was set at around $360,000. This turned out to be one of the most grueling films I ever directed. The Angels did not have great attention spans. I worked with about twenty of them but on some days the number dropped; they'd collect their cash and just drift off. No critic ever mentioned it, but the background Angels tend to keep changing from shot to shot." There were other problems as well according to Beverly Gray's Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Life: "There were fears of pot busts, the near asphyxiation of a cast member, and motorcycles that refused to stay in working order. The California Highway Patrol lurked, waiting to arrest bikers who had outstanding warrants. Frank Sinatra...let it be known that if anything happened to his elder daughter Nancy, who was playing the female lead, there would be major hell to pay. In the thick of things was young Peter Bogdanovich...who acted as Corman's production assistant, rewrote Chuck Griffith's script without credit, directed second unit, and was beaten up by the Hell's Angels for real when he served as an extra in an on-camera fight scene."
The Angels were definitely a difficult and intimidating presence on the film set and Bruce Dern later said "I got punched out by a couple of Angels because I was wearing their "colors." This was right in front of the church on North Argyle in Hollywood, where we shot Loser's funeral service...I was out cold on the sidewalk. It was, like, Hey, I'm not even alive in the movie. I'm dead, and still they're beating me." Bogdanovich revealed in Corman's memoir that "Roger was tired and frantic by the end. That's why the Angels didn't always like Roger; he was an authority figure and he was always, "Hurry, hurry, hurry, no time, no time, let's go, let's go." And so the Angels didn't always like me because they figured I was the silent one next to him who's really the sh*t."
At the same time, Corman was shooting The Wild Angels, his brother Gene was producing another movie at a nearby location. "Here we were, surrounded by all this neo-Nazi imagery," Corman recalled (The Films of Roger Corman: Brilliance on a Budget by Ed Naha). "We were on location in Mecca, California, shooting the town sequences. My brother was shooting a war picture entitled Tobruk on a stretch of desert right outside of Mecca. As a joke, he sent a group of Nazi half-tracks over to 'raid' my set. My Hell's Angels are roaring down one end of the street, the cameras are rolling, and all of a sudden, a convoy of Nazi half-tracks appear at the other end of the block. They're firing machine guns at the Hell's Angels. The Angels keep on riding, meeting the half-tracks in the middle of the street. I started yelling 'Cut! Cut!" My assistant director, Paul Rapp, at the same time, started screaming 'Don't cut! Don't cut! This is great stuff! Great stuff!' It was that sort of movie."
In recalling his experiences on The Wild Angels, Peter Fonda was amused by the fact that Corman had to dig a trench for him to walk in alongside the petite Nancy Sinatra for a long dolly shot because Fonda was too tall in their scene together. "It was necessary for me to start out walking normally with Nancy and, as the camera came closer, begin to bend down until I was in the trench, and then I had to straighten up slowly to make the shot work. We call the crouching part a "Groucho," for the comic way Groucho Marx would sometimes walk." Fonda also enjoyed working with Nancy Sinatra, noting she "could take care of herself very well, and she'd earned the respect of the entire company. Hell, she could have taken care of herself, Frankie Jr., Tina, Nancy Sr., and Frank!" In addition, Fonda said "one of my best experiences on the shoot was working with Bruce Dern, whose work I'd admired for some time. His persona was unique, and he filled his moments beautifully. He wasn't into smoking anything, nor did he know about bikers, and though I provided him with a pair of glasses and some of the dialect, he did all the rest. I think he played the Loser much better than I could have."
Like The Wild One before it, The Wild Angels stirred up considerable controversy during its theatrical release and was generally attacked by most U.S. critics. Hollis Alpert of The Saturday Review wrote, "It is precisely because nothing is shown of psychological or social background, that the film is faulty and, in a sense, irresponsible." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times dismissed it as a "brutal little picture" and "an embarrassment." Judith Crist, critic for both the New York Herald Tribune and World Journal Tribune, wrote that the movie featured "a thoroughly inept cast, without even the context of good cycling sequences." But Variety was more favorable calling The Wild Angels a "realistic leather jacket delinquency yarn with plenty of shock value" and Vincent Canby in a Sunday New York Times piece actually praised the movie and Corman, stating that it was "the best work to date of the newest cinema auteur - the work of a filmmaker with a vigorous, highly personal cinematic style."
The critics didn't really matter in the end because The Wild Angels was the highest grossing film to date released by AIP. It had cost $362,000 to produce and earned over $200 million in film rentals. In Europe, it was received much more favorably by the critics and was even nominated for a Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. Most importantly of all, the movie helped launch the film careers of Fonda, Dern, and Bogdanovich and allowed Corman to ask for and receive bigger budgets and A-list actors for such subsequent movies as The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967) and Bloody Mama (1970). And The Wild Angels still remains the quintessential sixties biker film despite worthy competition from the many imitations of it that followed - Hell's Angels on Wheels (1967), The Born Losers (1967), She-Devils on Wheels (1968), and The Losers (1970) on up to more contemporary titles like Mad Max (1979), The Loveless (1982) and beyond.
Producer: Roger Corman
Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Charles B. Griffith; Peter Bogdanovich (uncredited)
Cinematography: Richard Moore; Peter Bogdanovich (uncredited)
Art Direction: Leon Ericksen
Music: Mike Curb; Davie Allan (uncredited)
Film Editing: Monte Hellman; Peter Bogdanovich (uncredited)
Cast: Peter Fonda (Heavenly Blues), Nancy Sinatra (Mike), Bruce Dern (Loser), Diane Ladd (Gaysh), Buck Taylor (Dear John), Norman Alden (Medic), Michael J. Pollard (Pigmy), Lou Procopio (Joint), Joan Shawlee (Momma Monahan), Marc Cavell (Frankenstein), Coby Denton (Bull Puckey), Frank Maxwell (Preacher), Gayle Hunnicutt (Suzie), Art Baker (Thomas), Dick Miller (Rigger).
by Jeff Stafford
Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir by Peter Fonda
Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Life by Beverly Gray
How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime by Roger Corman with Jim Jerome
The Films of Roger Corman: Brilliance on a Budget by Ed Naha
Things I've Said But Probably Shouldn't Have by Bruce Dern